Copyright & Fair Use Guidelines for School Projects

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Using materials created by other people in a school project isn't necessarily a violation of the copyright laws. Students routinely lift images from web pages to illustrate a science project or quote passages from books in class papers. While the copyright law often protects such materials, the act of copying them may be protected by the fair use exception of the copyright law.

Copyright Protection

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, including literary, musical, dramatic, pictorial or graphic works. The holder of the copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce the protected work and to prepare derivative works. Engaging in these activities without permission is called infringement.

Read More: Copyright Laws for Quotations

Fair Use Doctrine

The fair use exception is a defense to infringement. This fair use doctrine can protect a student who reproduces work for the purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research. For example, if a student is preparing a science fair poster about research he did on a particular drug, he might include information quoted from the drug's package insert. Such copying might qualify under the fair use doctrine because it was done for the purpose of research.


The fair use doctrine is not a blanket excuse for appropriating another's copyrighted work. Title 17 lists factors that determine whether a use is truly fair. These factors include the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used and the effect of such copying on the potential market for the work. As an example, copying an entire web page for a school project would not likely qualify as fair use.


Although the fair use doctrine is largely silent as to the student's duty to cite his sources, the student should ensure that he credits the author for any material he uses. Copying material without citing sources is plagiarism -- which is not protected under the fair use doctrine. The original author always has the right to claim authorship of portions of a project that were copied. Likewise, the author can lawfully prevent the use of her name if her original works are distorted or mutilated.

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